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The Letter of the Law or Its Spirit? or: Why Specifics Matter With Spirits!

September 18, 2012

Part of a continuing series I’ve dubbed, “To Be A Young Necromancer In Love,” updating Tuesdays and whenever the hell I feel like.

In the past I’ve discussed the Colonial Horror game. It was definitely a solid campaign full of all sorts of whacky insanity while at the same time having a decent core of intense roleplaying and only semi-ham-handed story structure by yours truly. Definitely what was at the center of this game was my own love for the time period, the fact that I ran this at my college (a school that actually shares space with Colonial Williamsburg), and that by being set in the, “real world,” it was easier for the players to get into it.


A “brief” aside here, I have found that if you’re trying to introduce people to the concept of roleplaying or run a game where the players are really going to get in character, run the game in something inspired by the real world. Whether this means you set the game in the modern world and the players are things like a small town sheriff or a biker, or it’s a historical game and the players are an English Roundhead or French Courtier is up to you. Still, our perceptions and understandings of our own world, plus the easy access to information thanks to the internet, means that back stories are all over the place.

This is why even when people try to run a fantasy or science fiction game without any basis on previous mythology or canon, their character races might still fall into the tropes like “The Five Races.” I wouldn’t call these tropes a bad things, tropes exist because it is hard to write new lore and create a world from whole cloth. This is why, I’ve argued before that D&D has a colonial/racist mindset in its view of the, “evil races.” It’s not a values judgment, it’s a descriptor. There’s a known schema in our minds for people in a frontier complaining about savages riding off with their cattle (whether they’re Bush people stealing from an African town, Viking raiders off the coast of England, or Indians in the Americas), and the game uses said schema regularly. Just like, because of Tolkien, there’s a way in which we imagine Elves and Dwarves.

You might be able to write and construct a galaxy that would win you the Hugo Award for best new author. However, can your players really grasp the concept of being a sentient cloud of hydrogen or fighting with the crystalline people of Devlar IV? Unless you have detailed pages upon pages for the hydrogen cloud people, the characters might seem stiff and weird. While appropriate for humans playing aliens, it might not be appropriate for having fun.

For example, people can get into the Klingons because when they first appeared in Star Trek they were viewed as stand-ins for communists, or really any vaguely foreign opposition power (not unlike, I would argue the Cardassians of the Next Generation era). As time progressed, the Klingons have become more of a general, “Proud Warrior Race Guy,” though not necessarily to any detriment. There are stories that we can understand because various Human cultures have had Proud Warrior Guy traditions. When we watch episodes like “Sins of the Father,” “Blood Oath,” and of course, “Soldiers of the Empire,” we see and understand Klingons in a very Human way.

Sometimes, the best way to map your alien or fantasy race cultures is onto human ones. Or to take elements from human cultures and amplify them. It’s not the way to be revolutionary but it’s a great way to help your players. However, putting them onto an Earth with a slightly different history or the like, might provide them with something cool to play around with. I highly suggest sticking with the late Renaissance onward as this is when a lot of our modern notions of nationality begin to cement in our cultures.





The players really did enjoy the game, and I found their characters to be fairly well developed. This time around, I want to talk about Nathaniel Blackthorn. Nate was a boat pilot for Roanoke’s “lower harbor,” where small trade vessels dealing in lower quality goods would pass through (along with other unsavory sorts). He started the game as a grizzled veteran of an Anglo-Spanish conflict, with a burning hatred for the Spanish. Nate also had a rivalry with the competing boat pilot within Roanoke (they both yearned to be Harbormaster) who had the upper hand after causing Nate to run a shipment of the Dare Trading Company aground due to the rival’s trickery.

As the game evolved, so did Nathaniel Blackthorn…

The players often viewed their adventuring and magical powers as a chance to advance themselves socially and economically. As I’ve related in a previous post, one of the player’s owned a profitable tavern, and ran a school for wayward youth that eventually grew into a respectable college (the first in the United States).* Nate’s goals for advancement were far more personal.

From the early outset of the game, his goal was to regain his place as a respectable pilot of Roanoke, and even gain prominence within the colony itself. While the party did become renowned for their adventuring, the fact that many of their adventures involved a need for secrecy did prevent them from being lauded as heroes. Over the course of the game, Nate built an iron boat (powered by the spirit of Wilzyx, Archduke of the High-Whales), and became a competent ship-wright after proving himself worthy of investment capital from Virginia Dare. By the time the game came to a close, he eventually ascended to a Lordship for his actions in defense of the Colony and Crown.

One of the constant thorns in Nate’s side though was his rival, Matthew Lane.

Matthew Lane was an underhanded and dangerous foe. He had at various points worked with the Spanish, and the inland savages, to put Roanoke at risk. Mr. Lane also sought to humiliate Nate and by extension the party whenever he could. Lane also had the uncanny ability to abuse the legal system to avoid justice, and this infuriated Nate to no end.

Matthew Lane, and his rivalry, were largely the result of the Hero System’s use of a mechanic known as “Disadvantages,” or “Complications.” These are mechanics that are used to help players flesh out their characters in meaningful ways. They are not immutable, but they should be legitimate complications in the character’s life. For example, at the start of the game Nate hated the Spanish, but eventually he wanted his obsession with water, the moon, and spirits to take prominence, so he swapped out complications.

At a later point in the game, Nate started to feel the same way about Matthew Lane. Matthew had made for an interesting rival, especially earlier in the game, but now he was just being annoying. The players basically formed an iron clad case that got Matthew hung for treason. Eventually, the players succeeded, and Matthew was publicly executed.

Nate then took his body, and turned it over to a fey creature.

As I’ve mentioned before in this game, spirits were active in the world. Most of them resided in places of nature (or more appropriately pocket dimensions accessed through places of undisturbed nature), and had access to great magical powers. While the player’s most common fey contact was a creature they called, “The Lady of the Wood,” they had encountered another, far more horrifying creature they referred to as the Mud Man.

The Mud Man was basically a giant face and sludgy arms of mud that lived somewhere amidst the Great Dismal Swamp. He was considered less refined than the Lady of the Wood, and far more threatening/violent. It was to him that Nate traded the body of Matthew Lane in exchange for a boon, the only request he made was that under no circumstance would the Mud Man attempt to possess or control the body of Matthew Lane, or attempt to bring him back to life.

By the end of the game, Nate learned that the Mud Man had traded the corpse to a demon that he owed a favor to, and the demon did end up possessing Matthew Lane and used the body to assault Roanoke…


The question that this raises to me is a short and fun one. It is often stressed, across Human cultures, that when we deal with spiritual creatures, like the Fey, that we need to be very precise in our wording. This is because outside of the mortal realm, it is the specific words of a contract more than its spirit which matters. Apparently amongst human cultures, there’s theoretically the ability to say, “You know what I meant.”

However, I’m sort of left wondering if that is true.

What do we really value more? And how does this affect our actual day-to-day ethical lives?

In actual contract situations, even amongst good friends, we have to stop and ask ourselves, “Well, what if we really had to get into the nitty-gritty?” An example from my own life is when my parents and I formed a Limited Liability Corporation, and there were a lot of discussions over the precise nature of who is, “in charge,” and who has what responsibilities and shares. At the end of the day though, we’re family. None of us wants to take the others to court or embitter each other. However, you never know what might happen down the line, and the countless unforseen scenarios that can arise. God forbid, if someone dies, you’re not going to sit there and say, “Well, it doesn’t say it in his will, but it’s quite clear they would have intended this.

The person that says that, may even be right.

Yet, that’s not what’s written and what’s written in that situation is what matters, at least to the law.

How many times though do we forgive friends, family, even politicians and celebrities for saying words that they “didn’t intend that way.” Who would really hold someone to their exact words? Do we really become so infuriated if we’re waiting for someone and they inform us they’re “five minutes away,” and it takes seven or eight?

Let’s take it further though, people have codified morality before. We’ve written things down, and we clearly wrote them down in the hope that people would carry on following these written words. Yet, written words often seem insufficient, and open to interpretation.

The two most prominent examples that come to my mind are the Bible and the United States Constitution.

For example, the Bible forbid us from mixing our fabrics together or allow goats to feed in our potato fields. The ten commandments in the Old Testament imply that holding God above all other things is more important than honoring our families or murder. It is more important to strike down golden calves, and force the infidels to drink the molten gold, than it is to not kill. Later on in the Bible we’re encouraged to turn the cheek to our opponents and be humble.

Clearly there are conflicts between the Old Testament and the New. There are also aspects of the Bible that would seemingly be written for specific situations (like surviving in a desert surrounded by hostile nation-states). Yet, ideas such as hope, faith, and charity, are not necessarily bad. Clearly there’s something to the spirit of the book, or else it probably wouldn’t be so widely translated or form the basis for a major religion.

Still there are constant arguments over how to interpret it, and in how literally we should take it.

The same goes for the US Constitution. There are frequent arguments over what powers the President has because of how little are drawn out in the constitution. Even former presidents that had a hand in writing it, and believed in following it to the letter, embraced powers that weren’t laid out in the Constitution. The practicalities of governance have sometimes merited following the Constitution’s spirit and not its letter.

I think this idea also comes up in a classic phrase I remember from growing up in suburbia, “There are no traffic laws after 3am.” This is because of the lower rate of police officers during that time period, and just a logical extension of the concept that it’s, “only a crime if you get caught.”

In our daily lives we regularly disregard the concept of adhering to the letter of the law. Yet, we believe in the importance of that letter, in specifying it. Furthermore, the idea that if you’re going to write something down that it should be as specific as possible, as nothing should be left to chance.

One must then wonder, if this hunger for specifics is merely the reaction to arguments we have had for generations over various interpretations and “spirits,” of various bodies of law, religion, and philosophy?

Do we not all just yearn to strip ourselves of these half-assed interpretations and live like some sort of Leprechaun beholden to a highly structured world governed by specificities?



*: Take that Harvard!


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